Sweetwood Bride by Pamela Morsi
(Harper, $6.99, PG) ISBN 0-06-101365-X
Happy day Morsi fans! The Queen of the Backwoods Romance has once again worked her considerable magic, spinning yet another thoroughly endearing tale that is charming in its simplicity and heartwarming in its rustic tone.

As she has done so often, Morsi has created a memorable couple who come to love almost as a second thought, and in so doing embody the sweetness of romance. Like so many of the characters, or should I say "friends," who populate Morsi's earlier novels, Eulie and Moss are completely ordinary people who find their lives transformed by the stunning reality that love, can indeed, make the world a better place. And, like some of those earlier couples, both parties aren't initially keen on the idea. Fans of Morsi know that the author is very adept at creating believable marriages of convenience.

In this case, it's Eulie who traps Moss into a shotgun wedding by claiming an intimacy that doesn't exist. In fact, the two barely know each other. But Eulie is tired of being a sharecropper's daughter and wants her family back together. With her mother and father both passed on, eighteen-year-old Eulie is bound and determined to gather up the siblings who have been parceled out to her Sweetwood neighbors. Never mind that Minnie, the youngest, is thrilled to be treated as a little princess by the childless Pierces, or that Clara has fallen in love with old Bug Leight, and that the twins Cora Fay and Nora May are happily learning the weaving trade from the wise Miz Patch. Even Ransom, Eulie's notoriously unhappy teenage brother, is shocked when he discovers the lengths to which Eulie has gone in order to find security.

But the eternally optimistic Eulie has convinced herself that the arrangement is completely logical and will benefit everyone involved. Moss Collier is a twentysomething bachelor who lives with his disabled uncle on a pretty piece of land. He must be lonely. And Uncle Jeptha, though known far and wide as a hermit since he lost both legs in the war, must surely crave company. Beside, as the unapologetic Eulie continually reminds Moss following the ceremony, she and her siblings are hard workers.

What Eulie doesn't know is that Moss has been itching to leave Sweetwood and the mountains for years. His obligation to Uncle Jeptha is the only thing that has kept him from saddling his fine cattle horse, Red Tex, and fleeing the backwood for the wide open spaces of Texas. It's what keeps him going from day to day.

But suddenly he's being called "husband-man" by Eulie and has a pack of "youngers" dependent on him for their survival. When Eulie learns about Moss's dream, she offers him a way out. She got what she wanted there's no reason why he shouldn't take off as planned. It's not like they're in love. And now that she's family, it's her responsibility to care for Uncle Jeptha. Sure, it would be nice the have him around, and the thought of never having any children of her own is disappointing, but considering how she trapped him into marriage in the first place, it's only fair that she make reparations any way she can.

Moss is ecstatic. Yet with his dream closer than ever before, he begins to look at Eulie in a completely different light. While he makes long neglected repairs to the farm in preparation for his departure, he notices the pure pleasure she takes in doing even the most mundane chores. And maybe her hair isn't "stringy" after all, but beautiful. And sure his temperature rises whenever he gets close to her (especially considering what almost happened on their wedding night), but it wouldn't be right to "put a baby in her belly" and then just take off. Still, maybe he doesn't have to leave so soon. There is the crop to get in, and the root cellar to build, not to mention the molasses to make. Sure, he could wait a while, and maybe even get to know his bride a little better.

And that is exactly what happens. Hardly even aware of the fact that they are building a relationship, Moss and Eulie begin acting as a married couple sharing the responsibilities of their home and family. And the family in particular is causing problems. Eulie, who has been so single-minded in her mission to reunite her siblings, refuses to acknowledge that her brothers and sisters have their own agendas.

Morsi weaves these pieces and others together in a colorful patchwork that is humorous and sentimental without ever being sickly sweet. Eulie and Moss are far from perfect, but the joy is watching them join together to overcome their weaknesses. The chemistry between the two is apparent from the very beginning, and when the couple do finally consummate their relationship, it sends off fireworks. That's another of Morsi's strengths letting her characters develop to the point where lovemaking is a natural extension of their relationship, not a device used to carry the plot to the next chapter. Nothing much ever happens in a Morsi romance unless you consider a couple falling in heart-stopping, toe-curling love as action.

Yep. The folks in Sweetwood sure know a good couple when they see one. So will you. Add this one to the keeper shelf.

--Ann McGuire

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